July 24, 2012

Book 28: Titanic: The Long Night

Titanic: The Long Night
Diane Hoh

The story of the Titanic is one of historical fact that lends itself especially well to works of fiction. The grand contrast between the wealthy on the promenade deck and the nearly penniless immigrants on E Deck, the arrogance of the Gilded Age, and the well-known and lasting images of the ship's final hours all provide perfect story fodder, all without the necessity of adding anything original. This provides an interesting challenge for writers aspiring to set their stories on the liner, requiring enough originality to stimulate the imagination, but enough fealty to the well-known storylines to maintain credibility. Titanic: The Long Night errs on the side of familiarity both with regard to the ship's story and its characters, and though the book doesn't particularly suffer for it, what emerges is an oft-told tragic tale of young love. Hoh makes the usual rounds, visiting many of the usual sights around first class and a riotous party in the third class common room. The stories and characters are familiar, but compelling enough to maintain readers' attention throughout the novel, and there is a very real sense of suspense throughout, aided by the possibility that the main players might well die by the end of the novel. Though there are naturally some losses, none are particularly surprising, and the ultimate conclusion is a fitting, if expected. There are times when Hoh tries too hard to shoehorn modern politics into an earlier context, though this does make the novel more relatable for teens, who are its most appropriate, and likely its intended, audience. Despite the fact that the book treads a well-worn path, Hoh is skilled enough to create a compelling story, and the characters rise enough above stock level- though only just in many cases- to allow readers to care. In the end, the book is precisely what it aspires to be: Titanic: The Long Night is a satisfying, middle-of-the-line romantic story that efficiently utilizes the well-known facts of its setting to appeal to a modern audience.

Grade: B+

July 19, 2012

Book 27: The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- and Why
Amanda Ripley

For situations so aptly called "unthinkable," disasters of all varieties tend to occupy a large portion of our collective imagination. Hardly a week passes by when the 24-hour news cycle isn't hysterical about an earthquake, shooting, or accident, and yet this fascination is paired with a strange reluctance to really think about these incidents from a practical perspective, ignoring why they happen and focusing instead on how we react and how we might better train ourselves to survive. Amanda Ripley briefly lays out this scenario at the beginning of her fascinating book The Unthinkable, and brilliantly answers her own call for answers. Written for a general audience, Ripley is sharp and informative without being condescending or overly technical. The book is certainly for the thinking reader, but actively engages its audience. While this buddy-buddy feel can occasionally get annoying, the book maintains its focus on practicality, never straying far from the realm of actual historical incidents and their demonstrable effects. This makes the book an effective mix of history, psychology, and neurology, written with the assistance of those involved in all aspects of disastrous incidents, from survivors to neuroscientists.

The effort to locate and directly collect survivors' testimonies lends a great deal of credibility to an otherwise casual book, and allows Ripley to create both a framework and compelling individual stories. She tells her tales is a meaningful order, utilizing a specific incident or theme as the backbone of each particular chapter and tracing human reactions from the onset of trouble (or even before) through the heat of the moment. Aside form simply making sense, the organizational scheme lends the book that sense of narrative that is so often lacking from nonfiction and insists that human nature maintains its rightful place at the center of the work. The writing is as accessible as the content, and while Ripley's interest occasionally strays, the diversions are at least interesting and tangentially related to the matter at hand. Most importantly, the book follows through on its premise, offering integrated insights into historical events and providing a basic framework both for future study and, to a lesser extent, for practical action. She is persuasive without being preachy and offers practical solutions for the problems she presents. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes- and Why is among that rare class of nonfiction books capable of informing and entertaining a wide audience of receptive readers while retaining a sense of focus, mission, and perspective.

Grade: A

July 10, 2012

Book 26: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein

As someone who thoroughly enjoys science fiction, it's somewhat embarrassing to admit that this is the first work I've read by one of the genre's giants. This book, often regarded as one of Heinlein's finest, came with a lot of heavy expectations, and it stands up fairly well, though with a few hiccups. Narrative duties fall upon a central character who speaks the lunar dialect, which is essentially a stripped-down English with some borrowed slang from other languages. The dialect seems reasonable enough as an extrapolation, but its tendency to drop articles and pronouns creates an instinctive negative reaction to the speakers, which may cause readers to doubt their intelligence. Though the problem is ameliorated with time, and particularly during long sessions with the text, the language occasionally undermines the political ideas that permeate the novel. While Heinlein absolutely excels at throwing readers directly into the setting, both temporal and physical, with remarkably efficient brevity, he is less adept at exploring the politics that form the backbone of this novel. The plot centers around the political relationships between the Moon and Earth, and much of the main characters' screen time is spent in deep discussions, which often seem reductive or naïve. On one occasion, a character strongly advises against trusting a cache of information to a computer, while both speaker and author completely fail to recognize that this kind of "mistake" is, in fact, central to the entire premise of the plot

Heinlein isn't particularly assisted by his characters, who tend toward stock molds despite some valiant efforts to differentiate them. The young gun drawn in over his head, the newly-awakened AI, the all-knowing gray-hair, and the token female are all present.  Despite these and other missteps, the plot moves along fairly briskly, especially considering its more ideological construction and focus. The politics behind the events may be introduced in a somewhat clunky manner, but the whole thing plays out believably enough, and the novel excels as a thought experiment. The utter completeness of Heinlein's vision of a future lunar colony is amazing, and he considers many subtle aspects of a prison colony finding its identity, such as the effects of a highly unbalanced gender ratio and the forms of justice available when murder by airlock is a viable solution. The societal aspects of Heinlein's future are just as interesting, if not more so, than the politics, and his handling of them displays his ability to foresee and explain without much overt prodding, an ability unseen in his handling of the politics. While modern readers will question the novel's gender politics, and rightly so, it all hangs together as a reasonable, if undesirable, possibility.  As a whole, the book is a worthy thought experiment that can spur intriguing discussions over 45 years after its initial publication. While The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress may not excel on all levels, it certainly contains enough interesting fodder to justify its place on a list of high-ranking, lasting science fiction stories, even if it doesn't warrant quite as much praise as it has garnered.

Grade: A-

July 3, 2012

Book 25: Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse: A Novel
Daniel H. Wilson

The possible- and, some say, inevitable, sentience of artificial intelligence certainly isn't the most original way for an author to begin an apocalyptic tale, yet each robot story seems to tell us something about ourselves and, perhaps, what makes life unique. One would expect Daniel H. Wilson, who has a Ph.D. in robotics, to have a particularly interesting perspective on the idea of a robot uprising. Though Robopocalypse does entertain some interesting notions about the technical possibilities of robotics, however, all that it really delivers is a thin skeleton, without any satisfying thematic or character-based elements to elevate the book beyond a mere piquing of the scientific interest. Wilson first errs in the book's form, a kind of segmented post-facto history assembled by (naturally) one of the main human players in the drama. Nothing is inherently wrong with this set-up, and it worked wonderfully in World War Z, but from the beginning it feels clumsy and forced, a bit too self-conscious on both the main narrator and author's parts. We begin not with a feeling of suspense or impending doom, but with the reassurance that everything turns out all right, thus robbing the main narrative of much of its power. Aware that everything turns out all right, readers are less inclined to truly invest in the psychological uncertainties that a proper apocalypse thrives upon. To make matters worse, each section is introduced and concluded with a note from our historian, and while they largely succeed to place events within their respective context, they are painfully reductive and, particularly pre-"Zero Hour", childishly leading. Wilson keeps earnestly promising that certain characters will be vital in the New War and talking up his own story selection, and while this may be something that an experienced soldier might say when retelling his recent history, it is unsatisfying in the hands of an author who should know better. Again, Wilson fails to build any kind of suspense or dramatic resonance, instead constantly reminding readers that he, the author, is in charge of the story at hand, and that he has oh-so-cleverly created (wait for it!) an intertwined, global-scale plot.

Even more disastrous than these cutesy asides are the individual narrative voices. While I can appreciate the attempt at soldierly lingo or a Southern drawl in each first-person chapter, the numerous voices are surprisingly, er, robotic. And for some unfathomable, bizarre reason, the stories are told in present tense. Each and every one. Whether a police interview about a recent crime or a robot's log, the authors are present and accounted for, even when recounting past events. The effect is horrific, especially when paired with a misguided insistence on first person narration for a book whose entire conceit is that its constituent stories are appearing to the framing narrator via a computer. While it's true that people may recount stories using a mixture of tenses ("So, I'm sitting there when x finally shows up"), the existence of the framing narrative as well as the constant asides continually remind readers that the events of the book are occurring in the past. Wherefore, then, the false urgency? All suspense has already been drained from the book anyway, with the continual assurances that this character is important and that event turned out correctly and the author knows what he's doing, okay. It's absolutely maddening, and makes what should be either a breezy or deeply philosophical novel an absolute slog at times. Instead of character development and world building, we get transparent, ineffective gimmicks.

That the book is written so poorly is a shame, because it is evident throughout that Wilson has, in fact, put a lot of thought into his particular robot apocalypse, and he is able to effortlessly drop readers straight into that world when he stops trying so hard to sell his story. He utilizes a good mixture of familiar technology, foreseeable developments, and slight exaggerations to create a near future that is utterly believable, one that would, in the hands of a more competent writer,  force us to re-think our current relationship with technology. Instead, what we get is a lot of intriguing technological developments wrapped up in an insufficient narrative full of cardboard characters. Worse yet, there is no discernible theme. Why, exactly, does the robotic arch-nemesis decide to destroy humanity? There are some hints as to his motives, but I fear that Wilson mistakes a lack of sufficient development for something akin to subtlety. While the slap-bang aspects of the narrative are good enough to keep readers engaged despite a host of flaws, the book's ultimate conclusions, or lack thereof, are ultimately disappointing, and a work that should have excelled is instead relegated to the back corners of the brain. Those things Wilson does best- create compelling near-future technology, weave an interconnected plot- are crowded out by the book's basic writing flaws, wherein the compelling becomes sadly mundane. Robopocalypse posits an interesting future in an uninteresting way, and is a bit too caught up in its potential strengths to actually draw upon them; it is a novel of ideas but not, sadly, of engagement with them.

Grade: C+